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Train of thought

To the relief, perhaps, of many IFAs, the FSA in its 2006/2007 business plan signalled its intention to move away from reliance on detailed rules towards an approach to regulation based on higher-level principles – in other words, less box-ticking, more professional judgement.

Although the FSA’s “twin approach” of risk-based and principles-based regulation could be hampered by the proliferation of EU directives, principles such as treating customers fairly are becoming central to the regulator’s focus. The political climate, in the UK at least, is also moving towards a lighter regulatory touch.

Perhaps the focus of regulation will move from providing best advice towards more fundamental issues of consumer protection.

Even so, principles-based regulation underlines how IFAs need to understand that regulatory compliance is much more than simply following a handbook.

A competent adviser needs skills of a higher order than just rote learning. While the post-2001 regulatory system under the FSA was intended to help consumers take responsibility for their own informed decisions, the IFA must ensure that customers are in fact treated fairly.

How should firms and advisers approach education and training in this new regulatory environment? The FSA had already shifted its stance on training and competence. The 2003 move from “approved” to “appropriate” (fit for purpose) examinations introduced new flexibility. Firms can set their own assessments, with the Financial Services Skills Council offering an “endorsement service”.

In practice, only a few firms have gone down this route. Most still prefer to use the benchmark exam schemes in retail financial planning from the major examining bodies (CII’s Certificate in Financial Planning, the Securities and Investment Institute’s IFA Qualification and the revamped Certificate for Financial Advisers from the IFS School of Finance).

Each covers the common syllabus standards set down by the FSSC and differences between them are minor.

It is worth asking if this one syllabus fits all approach is truly helpful? Is it addressing old problems rather than new challenges? For example, increasing personal wealth, albeit contained in high property valuations, is driving many more people into the inheritance tax net. IFAs are perhaps ideally placed to offer some sort of “retail” tax advice. (Qualifications such as the Federation of Tax Advisors Associateship exam could become a useful addition to the IFA’s toolbox.) Or, again, high-net-worth individuals with sophisticated investment needs may need tailored advice.

Islamic finance is another area where specialist help may be increasingly in demand. You could argue that all advisers need this bedrock of knowledge but that more specialist needs, for example, for private client advice in the banking sector, can be imparted by post-qualification professional development programmes.

Despite the lighter regulatory touch, we are unlikely to move back to a situation where qualifications are optional extras for retail IFAs. On top if this, however, is the need to keep up to date via professional development.

For initial training, an external qualification gives many IFAs a valuable badge of competence. For new people entering the profession, time and dedication are as essential as they have always been. Classroom courses are run by some employers and some training providers but not everybody has easy access to them. Rural IFAs, in particularly, may find the travel too tricky. Work, family commitments and geographical distance may just simply get in the way.

The solution is offered by distance and blended learning and the potential it offers to dovetail learning and lifestyle. Using the opportunities of PC-ownership and broadband access with traditional paper-based approaches can be the right way for some. Indeed, computer-based exams focus efforts on this approach to study and self-testing. With a variety of materials, trainee IFAs can learn while on the move, with materials downloaded to their laptop.

A quality blended learning course will include a study programme – a route planner through the material, clearly showing the cycle of learning, practice and revision. A manual (in paper or on CD) will incorporate the core knowledge (only relevant knowledge, of course).

Interactive online tutorials give extra support. There will be plenty of opportunities for self-testing – an online environment or, failing that, a CD-Rom that simulates exam conditions, is ideal. Mock exams can be submitted for marking and review. The revision phase might use different tools, from summary cards, quizzes or MP3 files for downloading.

Moreover, a quality blended learning provider offers counselling and advice (email or phone) and are able to use email to manage the student’s learning proactively, for example, by sending targeted emails at key dates.

Online discussion groups can simulate the networking effect by giving students a forum to share questions, concerns and advice.

Learning remains the learner’s responsibility. A “learning zone” in time is crucial and must start with a realistic target exam date. A quality distance learning provider ought to be able to offer advice in this respect. Over-ambitious targets, set without an honest assessment of the time available, can be demotivating if not achieved. Creating a space for learning – a learning zone – at home is helpful.

Other considerations apply to post-qualification professional development, where IFAs are updating knowledge they already have. A seminar, for example, on tax changes or pensions allows difficult technical issues to be explored in depth.

The major institutes (such as the CII, the SII, the IFS) as well as private sector providers offer a wealth of courses covering all aspects of professional development, enabling IFAs to build up specialist knowledge. Again, there is a growing trend for these to be delivered online.

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